Olmsted County commissioners are planning to return to meeting in-person as a board on March 16, but Rochester City Council members are taking slower steps back to public chambers.
“We’ll have better clarity by mid-March,” Rochester City Administrator Alison Zelms said, pointing to a model that will likely allow council members to return to chambers when they feel comfortable.
As it stands, the council members vary on their planned approaches to gathering.
“I don’t see any reason we’re not (meeting in person),” council member Shaun Palmer said, adding that he thinks meetings can be conducted safely.
On the other hand, council member Nick Campion said he’ll be cautious as plans emerge.
“I will evaluate the situation,” he said. “Until I am vaccinated, I think evaluating the situation on an ongoing basis is the best strategy.”
Rochester Mayor Kim Norton agreed that vaccination status will be key.
“When people get vaccinated, I think that makes perfect sense,” she said, adding she believes May meetings are a realistic goal. “I’m not interested in this point in going in and sitting inside for what appears to be hours in meetings.”
The vaccination status is one thing that sets county commissioners and city council members apart.
While several council members continue to wait for the call for vaccination, only one county commissioner -- Matt Flynn -- hasn’t been vaccinated.
Flynn, who attended meetings in board chambers throughout the pandemic until a surgery sidelined him temporarily, said he plans to attend the March 16 board meeting, with or without a vaccine in his arm.
County Board Chairwoman Stephanie Podulke said the commissioners cited a desire to return to meeting in person after a commissioners’ retreat that brought them together in a large conference room last month.
“That was one of the first times we had a meeting like that, and it was nice,” she said of being able to engage in person.
Olmsted County Administrator Heidi Welsch said the return of elected officials to the meetings won’t spur the return of most staff members, who will continue to attend meetings through online connections.
“We still don’t want too many people in that room, because most of our staff is not vaccinated yet, especially among our department heads,” she said.
Zelms said the same is likely true for city staff under a hybrid model used before the council ordered all city meetings to be strictly online in November.
The mix of in-person and online attendance is also expected to allow local residents to decide how they want to attend and potentially address the elected bodies.
The board has maintained options for limited public attendance, and Welsch said staff will evaluate how many people can attend meetings once all the commissioners return.
Zelms said current planning efforts are doing the same, with a desire to balance safety and access.
“We have the benefit now -- unlike before the pandemic -- to plan ahead,” she said.
Council members have said planning will be important.
Council member Kelly Rae Kirkpatrick said having the option to eventually be in person is critical to engage as many residents as possible, noting that technology has been difficult to navigate for some older residents.
“Navigating the system to view meetings has been a deterrent for many, not just our older demographic,” she added.
At the same time, a new “normal” might take some time.
“As for full in-person council chamber meetings like 2019, that is more likely the fall,” council member Patrick Keane said, adding that he anticipates some sort of return in the spring, but official council discussion on the issue hasn’t started.
Even as regular meetings return, Welsch and Zelms said changes may remain, especially when it comes to public access to meetings. They cited a desire to find ways to allow residents to participate from home.
State law requires elected officials to be present at meetings outside of a pandemic-related statewide emergency, but the same requirement doesn’t exist for members of the public.
Rochester City Attorney Jason Loos said the only restrictions are likely based on technology, and Zelms and Welsch said they expect many of those can be overcome after months of conducting online meetings.
“I don’t see that as a big problem with having two platforms -- in person and online,” Welsch said. “That would be a great benefit.”